Dear Parents, Please Stop Making Your Screaming Babies Sit on Santa’s Lap

Dear Parents, Please Stop Making Your Screaming Babies Sit on Santa's Lap

Dear Parents,

I am aware that this is bound to be an unpopular opinion, but please, hear me out.  Please stop making your screaming babies sit on Santa’s lap.  I know, I know.  It’s the holidays and who doesn’t want a cute picture of their little one sitting on the big guy’s lap to commemorate this holiday season? I get it. It’s tradition.  Everyone else is doing it. And what if you didn’t have any pictures of your child with Santa to show them when they’re all grown up?  Here’s the thing, though… If your baby is screaming while you place him on Santa’s lap and slowly back away, is that really the kind of treasured holiday memory you want to have?

The other day I had to go to Walmart for some last-minute birthday supplies.  While I was there, I noticed that there was an (actually, really authentic looking) Santa and Mrs. Clause taking photos with children.  Parent after parent was lining up to place their little one on Santa’s lap quick enough to back away and snap a photo before the kiddo could launch him or herself off of Santa.  I watched as parents smiled at their children, verbally reassuring them, “Mommy’s right here!”  “Daddy’s here, honey, smile!”  And the children were crying and screaming and reaching for their parents and sending every possible signal they could think of to communicate that they were afraid and uncomfortable with this scenario.

The key to building a healthy relationship with your baby is through consistently sensitive and responsive caregiving.  This means that you strive to understand and interpret your baby’s non-verbal cues and provide caregiving that is consistent with the messages that your baby is communicating.  When you force your baby to sit on Santa’s lap, despite her obvious protest, you are causing a mini-rupture in the relationship.  In that moment, your child is sending a signal which clearly communicates that he or she is feeling afraid, and for the sake of a photo, you are intentionally ignoring those cues.

Is your child going to be permanently scarred for life because you forced them to sit on Santa’s lap as an infant?  Probably not.  Who knows.  But I do know this, there are enough unintentional mini-ruptures in the course of the parent-child relationship on a daily basis that it just doesn’t seem worth it to me to add to that for the sake of a photo.  When I see a photo of a crying baby sitting on Santa, I don’t think to myself, “How cute!” I think to myself, “Poor baby.”  I am filled with empathy and compassion. Because I know that when I feel afraid, I like it when other people take that seriously and don’t diminish my feelings just because they don’t understand.

As an infant mental health specialist, it’s my job help parents understand their child’s subjective experiences.  I help parents dig deep under the surface to learn what a child’s behavior communicates so that they will be able to to respond sensitively and appropriately.  In this case, as the parent, you know that sitting on that mall Santa’s lap for a few seconds isn’t going to put your baby in any actual danger.  But your baby doesn’t know that.  What your baby does know is that her parent, her source of comfort and safety in this world, is handing her off to some big, scary-looking guy in a red suit.  He probably doesn’t look like anyone she knows and he seems kind of scary and – wait! – now mommy is walking away.  Where is she going? Danger, danger!

I think it’s important that we teach our children from the very beginning that we have the ability to understand and meet their needs. I believe that building trust is an essential piece of a healthy parent-child relationship.  To me, this situation seems like an easy place to strengthen that trust by acknowledging your child’s feelings and not forcing them to sit on Santa’s lap if they aren’t comfortable with that.  Still really want a Santa pic? How about holding baby beside Santa?  How else could you preserve the trust in your relationship and still get those cherished memories?  Besides, there are going to be plenty of times when your child is going to feel scared and is going to have to do something anyways (doctor visits, anyone?) and you can support them through those experiences.  But sitting on Santa’s lap? Just not one of those times.

Also, if sitting on Santa’s lap is totally your baby’s thing, by all means, go for it! I am totally pro-Santa pics when the child in question actually wants to sit on Santa’s lap!

Please stop making your crying baby sit on Santa's lap

What is Infant Mental Health?

If you’re like most people, when you hear the term “infant mental health,” you’re not really sure exactly what that means. Infant mental health actually refers to the period of time from conception to age 5.Infant Mental Health refers to healthy social-emotional development from conception through age 5

Infant mental health is synonymous with healthy social-emotional development. Healthy social-emotional development occurs when a child has competencies in three areas:
1. The ability to experience, express, and regulate emotions;
2. The ability to form close and secure relationships; and
3. The ability to explore the environment and learn.

Infant mental health depends on wellness in four key areas:
1. The child;
2. The parent;
3. The environment; and
4. The relationship between the child and the parent.

If you would like some clarity on the definition of infant mental health, you’re going to love today’s video.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! What was new or surprising information in this video? What would you like to know more about? Comment below or come share with our community on Facebook.

Infant Mental Health refers to healthy social-emotional development from conception through age 5

Building Resilient Kids By Building Strong Relationships

Strengthen your parent-child relationship and build resilience. Free Mini-Course 5 Steps to Creating Connection at reflectingrelationships.com

Intentionally strengthening your relationship with your child is the best thing you can do to build resilience

Everyone is resilient. We often talk of resilience as a characteristic that an individual either has or does not have. “She’ll be ok; she’s resilient” or “I’m worried about him; he’s just not that resilient.” However, the truth is that resilience exists on a continuum, with every person possessing varying degrees of resilience in various situations and life circumstances.

Many factors go into determining how an individual will respond to any given situation. However, for children, the single strongest predictor of resilience is the presence of a relationship with at least one sensitively attuned, caring, and competent adult. Ideally, this adult is a parent; however, that is not always the case. Having a safe adult, who is emotionally available and able to help them process an adverse event, buffers the level of toxic stress experienced by a child in any given situation. An event that may be experienced as a tolerable stressor with the presence of a compassionate adult caregiver would likely be toxic for a child without that connection. Likewise, an event that could easily be a toxic stressor, can often be buffered by the presence of a supportive, loving relationship.

Through a relationship with a caring adult, a child learns the values of empathy and compassion. They learn what it is like to be cared for by another and how to care for others in return. A nurturing relationship with your child in infancy and early childhood will create neural pathways that impact the rest of your child’s life. A sensitive, attuned parent during the first year of life is the gift that keeps on giving. (Even though they won’t actually recognize that, because memories from the first year of life are stored subconsciously. So, don’t expect a big thank you or anything.)

At any time during the life span, resilience is strengthened in the context of close relationships. This means that the very best thing you can do to help your child develop a strong ability to bounce back from adversity is to spend time actively building and strengthening your relationship. By focusing on strengthening the parent-child relationship, you will help your child create neural pathways that are wired for successful relationships. You will teach your child that relationships are safe and that people can be trusted. Additionally, a securely attached parent-child relationship also creates pathways in your child’s brain for positive self-esteem and confidence. Through the relationship, your child learns that he or she has the ability to be successful in relationships with others, creating a sense of confidence that will extend to other relationships as well.

You can also use your relationship as a means to strengthen other qualities of resilience in your child. For example, you can use your relationship to instill in your child a strong sense of self-efficacy, an important factor in resilience. Self-efficacy is the belief that an individual has the ability to make changes and reach goals in their own life. Without this belief, people often develop what is commonly called a “victim mentality.” This is the difference between taking steps toward reaching a goal or giving up because you feel that no matter what you do, it won’t make a difference anyways. Self-efficacy is critical to creating a sense that one has control over their own life and, as such, is an important piece of the resilience puzzle.

One of the very best investments of your time that you can make is on your relationship with your child. Are you interested in learning more about how to build resilience in your child by strengthening your relationship? I would be honored if you would sign up to receive my free mini-course, “5 Steps to Creating Connection.” In this 5-part series, you will receive daily assignments and PDF worksheets to help you start taking concrete action toward an intentional relationship with your little one. Sign up here to subscribe and then please join our community on Facebook and let us know how it’s going!

Free 5 part mini-course "Creating Connection with Your Child" at www.reflectingrelationships.com

Teaching Belly Breathing for Emotional Regulation

As humans, when we are in a highly emotional state such as anger or sadness, the emotional part of our brain, made up of the brain stem and limbic system, takes over. When this happens, our rational brain, or prefrontal cortex, disengages temporarily. This is what makes it so difficult to rationalize with someone who is super angry.  As the body reacts to a highly emotionally charged stimuli, stress hormones take over sending the body into survival mode – what you have probably heard of as fight, flight, or freeze.  Keep in mind, the emotional brain is very sensitive and reacts to anything that is perceived to be a threat, whether it is truly a threat or not.

In a healthy adult brain, the rational brain is able to re-engage fairly quickly, allowing the person to cool down and begin to think more logically about the next action steps. However, the rational brain is not mature until approximately the mid-late 20’s. When young children tantrum, it’s important to keep in mind that while the emotional brain is fully mature around age 3, the rational brain is still in the very early stages of development.

Emotional regulation, belly breathing, deep breathing, children, mindfulness

Belly breathing helps children learn emotional regulation skills by helping them access executive functioning.

Teaching children to engage and use their executive functioning skills is something that needs to be done intentionally, during happy times, to help them master emotional regulation during challenging times. One of the absolute best ways to do this is to teach your kiddos how to take big, deep breaths into their belly. Belly breathing reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and also increases serotonin levels. Big belly breaths increase blood flow and circulation to the rational brain and help create a pause between an upsetting event and the reaction by allowing the rational brain to be a part of the decision making process. I suggest introducing belly breathing during a calm, pleasant, one-on-one time.  Practice with your child every chance you get.  Belly breathing is a skill that needs to be practiced frequently when we don’t need it to ensure that we are able to access it readily when we do need it.

There are many ways to introduce belly breathing to your child and lots of techniques that make it fun and engaging.  A parent introduced me to this video and I have used it quite a bit lately to introduce little ones to the idea of belly breathing. It’s fun, engaging, and catchy, and let’s be honest, as a parent, you can never have enough Elmo in your life, right? 😉

 

 

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The Impact of Toxic Stress on Brain Development

One way that traumatic experiences can negatively effect brain development is through the accumulation of toxic stress. Stress is a normal, necessary part of life and can be a positive factor in helping children develop the skills they need to cope with challenging situations throughout life. Stress stops being a positive thing when it becomes too severe or prolonged and overwhelms the child’s ability to manage.

There are three categories of stress. First is positive stress. This results from adverse experiences which are short in duration. Things that cause positive stress are a visit to the doctor’s office, meeting new people, or attending a new daycare. This type of stress causes minor physiological changes including increased heart rate and changes in hormone levels, specifically a rise in cortisol. With the support of caring, trustworthy adults, children lean how to manage and overcome positive stress. Learning to cope with normal stress is an important part of the developmental process.

The next type of stress is called tolerable stress. Tolerable stress refers to adverse experiences that are more intense but relatively short in duration. Examples of this might include parent’s divorce, a car accident, or death of a loved one. This causes more serious, but temporary responses in the child’s stress response system and the negative effects are buffered by supportive relationships.

The third type of stress and the one that we are most concerned with is toxic stress. Toxic stress results from intense adverse experiences that are chronic and sustained over a long period of time – weeks, months, or years. The most common type of toxic stress is maltreatment in the form of abuse or neglect. As a result of this type of stress, the stress response system becomes activated for a long period of time, which can lead to permanent changes in brain development. For example, toxic stress can impair development of synaptic connections in the brain, literally resulting in a smaller brain in children who are exposed to chronic, toxic stress. The frequent flooding of stress hormones also leads to a low biological threshold for stressful experiences, causing individuals exposed to toxic stress to become overly reactive to adverse experiences throughout their lives. High levels of stress hormones like cortisol actually suppress the body’s immune response which leaves people vulnerable to infections and chronic health problems. High levels of cortisol also damage the hippocampus which is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, causing cognitive deficits that continue into adulthood.

In order to ensure healthy brain development in children, we need to minimize exposure to toxic stress by promoting healthy, secure attachments beginning at birth. Emotional African girl